The Cardinals began this offseason with too many outfielders and not enough reliable relievers. They may have solved both issues with their most recent trade.
After a few years of debating the player Randal Grichuk was—or could be—the Cardinals got off the ride Friday, trading the ‘Stallion’ to Toronto for reliever Dominic Leone and pitching prospect Conner Greene.
Grichuk was never able to refine his raw power and fell short of realizing the star potential he occasionally displayed during his time with the team. Despite stunning strength, the 26-year-old failed to make contact consistently enough to be truly fearsome.
With Marcell Ozuna, Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham expected to man the outfield full time, Grichuk’s opportunity was limited.
Still, Grichuk’s power, speed and defensive flexibility off the bench would have made him a useful tool for the club.
“The importance of keeping Grichuk is his ability to play all three (outfield spots),” Mozeliak said last weekend at Winter Warm-Up, insinuating the team would retain him as a fourth outfielder. The next words out of his mouth, though, should have been a clue that the previous sentence didn’t really mean much.
“When you look at even having someone like Harrison Bader or someone like Tyler O’Neill, all of those guys have the ability to do that,” Mozeliak continued, effectively outlining why Grichuk was no longer a fit in the organization.
Arbitration eligible for the first time, Grichuk agreed to a $2.6 million, one-year deal a few weeks ago. Rather than pay Grichuk close to five times the major league minimum to come off the bench, they can cycle through Bader, O’Neill and Oscar Mercado for that role.
The Cardinals aren’t hurting for cash, but the financial benefit is still a fine bonus.
The true payoff of the trade is fixing a questionable bullpen. While Mozeliak insisted he was comfortable relying on younger guys to step up and help the Cardinals navigate late innings, neglecting to add a proven reliever beyond Luke Gregerson (whose 2017 left plenty to be desired) would have been a senseless risk. In Leone, the Cardinals at least have another capable arm to lean on in relief.
After a stellar debut season in 2014 (8-2, 2.17 ERA in 66.1 innings), Leone struggled mightily through 2015 and 2016. He was traded and then designated for assignment in 2017 and the Blue Jays picked him up off waivers looking for cheap bullpen help. He rewarded them with a breakout season.
In 70.1 innings, Leone posted a 2.56 ERA, striking out 81 batters and kept the bases relatively clear with a sterling 1.05 WHIP. When he inherited runners, only 22 percent of them scored, putting him among the best in baseball at preventing damage.
The 26-year-old will earn just over $1 million this season and has three years of arbitration eligibility remaining from 2019-2021.
St. Louis wanted a cost-controlled reliever to anchor the bullpen. After foregoing affordable free-agent options like Juan Nicasio or Addison Reed, the Cardinals landed one for pocket change, and in exchange, surrendered a redundant player on their roster.
It’s hard to argue with the strategy.
Dealing from depth to address the weakness, the Cardinal front office added Leone and Marcell Ozuna to fill two roles. That they’ve done so while keeping the majority of their young pitching core intact (of the ‘big’ names, only Sandy Alcantara departed) is a testament to the shrewd approach the team has executed this winter.
However, the success of that approach depends on a great many gambles paying off.
If the winter’s moves don’t pay off—if Ozuna regresses to his pre-2017 numbers, if Gregerson doesn’t bounce back, if Miles Mikolas doesn’t translate his success to MLB, if Leone again fails to follow up one solid year with another—it’s hard to see how the Cardinals elevate from 83 wins last season to a postseason berth.
Copyright 2018 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.